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An Interview with Lee Klein
by Ryan Robert Mullen

Lee Klein is the editor of His first book Incidents of Egotoursim in the Temporary World was recently released by Better Non Sequitur. He will attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall.


RRM: Have you really made acquaintance with a man older than thirteen that named his genitalia “Denzel” and do you think he actually told potential lovers this? If so, what television show do you think he was raised on?

LK: Is “made acquaintance with” right? Isn’t it more correct to say “made the acquaintnessship of”? Anyway. Certain things even the most imaginative writer can’t imagine, and not being terribly imaginative, I never would’ve imagined such a thing as making the acquaintnesship of a boisterously shit-talkin,’ 32-year-old, alpha-male, African-American, copy-center toiler who liked calling his big, black, poisonous python by the familiar name Denzel. Pretty much all the dialogue—and even the long-distance/mimed/conceptual rape scene—in that chapter (“The Straight Razor”) definitely appeared in real physical space one point long ago before it vanished for a time before getting stuck in print . . . What television show raised the guy who called his cock Denzel? I’d say it was This Week in Baseball, hopefully. An all-star shortstop in a semi-pro softball league, he just as easily could’ve called his manhood his little bat-pumpin’ Willie Stargell or base-on-balls Rod Carew or his Shake-‘n’-Bake McBride or, simply, his U.L. Washington. You know what the “U.L.” stood for in the name of the Royals’ 1980 World Series-losin’, toothpick suckin’ shortstop, don’t ya? That’s right, it stood for “U.L.” (No kidding.)

Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World by Lee Klein is now available from Better Non Sequitur

RRM: The passage in Incidents of Egotoursim in the Temporary World concerning looking up the horoscope of a distant and past girlfriend is perhaps the most honest portrait of the emotional dynamics of such things I’ve read since X-MEN #17- have you really ever done such a thing and, if so, for how long?

LK: Is looking up a girlfriend’s horoscope cartoonishly “emotional” or “sentimental” when represented in fiction? Not sure, but it’s certainly something I’ve done. I’ve had about three year’s worth of long-distance relationships recently, all the while subscribing to Time Out NY, reading Planet Terry while pooping etc, and my eyes have often skipped from Aquarian advice to that of my beloved’s relevant star sign. Doing this lets me know what weirdness to expect in the next astrological week. And that’s the cool thing about using a horoscope in fiction: it mimics the literary interpretative process somewhat, right? (Don’t roll your eyes.) It’s like this: you read some line about “sudden windfalls,” then you go about your day with an eye out for “sudden windfalls” and when you find a penny on the street or a cashier gives you back incorrect change or a few thousand smackers miraculously appear in your bank account it’s like voila a-ha, which is sort of like when writing and/or reading wherein ideally you have a so-called “eye out” for details that might easily be missed but are really totally essential to everything as part of something larger. The Egotourism book’s got a few of those sort of seek and ye shall find minor details that hopefully accrete as the book goes on. Uh-huh. The truth.

RRM: Have you really defecated on a Mayan temple? If so, did you clean-up afterward?

LK: This question is one of the keys to the book, wherein there’s a bit about such a shit in the narrator’s travel journal, Love in the Time of Coca-Cola, true, but did the author who textually animated the narrator actually ever shit on a Mayan ruin? That is your question, albeit one I don’t think I can answer. Sure, I could say I did it (nearly nine years ago!), but doing so would open the door to the possibility of a hundred thousand Guatemalans coming to find me in serene (and largely Guatemalanless) Iowa City to extricate my anus from the rest of me. Or I could say it’s fiction, fiction, only fiction, amigos! Not to worry: FICTION! But that’s the coward’s way out, right? So instead I’ll opt for putting a Mayan fatwa on my ass that’ll hopefully ultimately do wonders for the book, its publisher, and its author, and I will say that nine years ago a younger and considerably more intrepid version of myself bribed a guard $7 and slept over night at Tikal on top of a pretty tall temple on which I had to poop in the middle of the night and found a dark corner and a big leaf and did the best I could to limit the splattering and streaking of this potential sacrilege. But the thing is, I’d also vomited on the ruins at Copan in Honduras on that trip a few weeks previous. So I think the ruins had a purifying effect on me. That’s the real question, not whether I simply did or did not shit upon a Mayan Ruin called El Mundo Perdido (“The Lost World”), but whether such an act is purification or sacrilege? Interpretation depends on who you see as the one with more power: (1) the twenty-five-year old American freak with all the money he has (under $1000) converted to traveler’s checks, or (2) one of the most impressive ruin sites in the world, a place so amazing George Lucas used it for the location of the rebel base in Star Wars. Another question that’s sort of interesting is whether the shitting damned or blessed the American Shitter? And that’s sort of one of the things the book’s about, a bit.


RRM: How long did it roughly require you to convert the Incidents of Egotoursim in the Temporary World from creative inception to the final, published form? How long did it take to find a publisher?

LK: It took exactly seven years from first thought to first book bought. Started writing in the spring of 1997 in Jamaica Plain, Boston, not really with a book in mind just yet. Wrote the bulk of it on location in my childhood room in Lawrenceville, NJ that fall, absolutely thinking “this is gonna be a book.” Wrote a few chapters in Chapel Hill at bars and cafes whilst visiting the long-distance lover (a trip that’s not covered in the book, thereby somehow making everything that is covered fictional, even if certain things covered actually happened, because fiction is fact selected, arranged, and charged with purpose, or so sayeth Thomas Wolfe—the 6’7’’ guy from Asheville. NC, not The Bonfire of the Vanities guy). And then I wrote some more in spring 1998, then let it sit for a year before really finishing it in June 1999, though the ending (“The Whip”) we ultimately chose to scrap from the printed book and make accessible online at on the “deleted scenes” page. In the summer of 1999, I unsuccessfully tried to get an agent—only queried a few. So then I put the whole thing online in December 2000. Then worked on it some more and unsuccessfully tried to get an agent about a year later; only asked 30 or so that time, all passed, some gave nice feedback. And so it remained online. Where Steven Coy of Better Non Sequitur, the book’s personal lord and savior, printed it out and read it and wrote me beautiful things about it and got down on one e-mailed knee and proposed publication, and I, blushing and amazed, said “yes, darling!” and took the thing down from after so many years of free international accessibility and really edited it properly (over a few weeks in January in Iowa City whilst visiting my sweetie before I moved here recently) with an editorial-sniper’s eye for the fact that it’d really be published and a few dozen people would maybe read it one day and would certainly not tolerate so many of the text’s many vaguenesses, indulgenceses, cheesinesses, etc.

RRM: Do you look at it and want to make more changes? Why or why not?

LK: I think I exterminated the most offending vaguenesses, indulgences, cheesinesses, etc. But maybe I’d correct two typos. “Mazel tov cocktail,” not “mozel tov.” And “Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” not Writer’s Workshop. Otherwise I really can’t see any really necessary changes to make right now. I’m sure when I read it in thirty years, I’ll want to change everything, but I sort of like it as it is as an edited artifact of how I wrote as a twenty-five-year old. Also, if we print another edition, there will probably be some changes. Maybe some new stuff inside. A new cover definitely. But those changes would be for fun, not necessity.

RRM: Do you like the book? I mean, are you proud of it/yourself for having written such a thing?

LK: The book’s not the work of the second coming of Milton or nothing, but it’s fine for what it is, and I’m certainly proud of the writing sometimes and (most definitely) the work Steven Coy and I did editing it and designing it and laying it out, that is, turning the somewhat scrappy manuscript into a carefully/lovingly prepared product. An amazing process if you think of it historically: I put book online, someone on other side of country reads it and wants to publish it in book form, and then you get me in my Brooklyn bedroom working on a laptop sitting on a chair by a window and Steven Coy in San Diego (often at work), zapping .pdf files back and forth, chapter per chapter, revision after revision, etc, ad infinitum, for days on end, until everything was where we wanted it to be ideally. One of the most wonderful things about the book, for example, is that Steven allowed 37 lines per page (instead of 36 as he had it at first) to accommodate some flaky numerological obsession thing I’ve got with the number 37. The love that went into it, that’s what I admire. (Pride’s a sin. Admiration’s not.)


RRM: What are you currently doing to support yourself financially? Do you enjoy it?

LK: I do as much medical-related freelance work as I can. I enjoy it a lot. It pays well. I work from home or wherever. Sometimes not at all. Sometimes all the time. I learn about pulmonary aspiration, rare diseases, Medicare, geriatrics, etc. I learn how to spell ophthalmology (a really weird-looking word—check out that “h” after the “p”. . .)

RRM: How many hours, on average, would you say you actively write (like, the physical process of DOING IT) in a week? What is your ratio of writing to editing?

LK: Depends. If you define writing as filling blank pages with ink, I’d say I do that, depending on the stage of what I’m working on, either not at all or many hours a day; sometimes as few as one or two, sometimes as many as seven. If you define writing more broadly to include editing as well, I’d say I spend nearly every day somewhere between three to five hours, sometimes less, sometimes more. I tend to edit more than I create new stuff. When I write new stuff I do so by hand so I can’t edit myself much at all since I can’t read my handwriting so well. Writing by hand lets the story go and makes me fill pages without going back for an hour to refine a first sentence that’ll inevitably be changed or cut. It’s been probably my most important writing innovation over the last few years, doing first drafts by hand, then, once the story or chapter or whatever is finished, I type it up (first edit), then really have at it, rewriting like mad, moving sentences and paragraphs, wiping things out, building bits up then streamlining them back down. It’s like, for me, I need to get as much material as possible downloaded or imported from my skull to the computer before I start working on it, and once I have all this raw, really terrible stuff, I go at it and refine and refine and refine it a bunch of times, then let it sit, then come back to it, give it to people, make changes, print it out again, edit on paper, incorporate the changes, refine some more, cut words, add words, read aloud, barbecue, stir-fry, finish with a wedge of lemon. Or something. I don’t know the ratio, but it’s heavily in favor of editing. And I consider editing absolutely the most important part of the process. And I don’t see editing as anything other than writing. I tend to call them both “work.” Which is more like “play.”

RRM: Describe your ideal creative environment in terms of beer, music, and proximity of people.

LK: Alone in a room or on a porch with tons of coffee and some ambient/repetitive music like Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” or “Discreet Music” or Godspeed You Black Emperor or Can (“Future Days”) or John Cage’s “Hommage a Satie” or some experimental guitar stuff by Jim O’Rourke and Loren MazzaCane-Connors or all of Stereolab on iTunes shuffle or some crazy shit like Bach or Brahms or even that Mozart dude sometimes, or Coltrane (“Africa Brass”) or mid-period Sun Ra (“Supersonic Jazz”) or Bill Evans (“Live at the Village Vanguard”) or whatever else. Public spots like bars and cafes I like too sometimes since the distraction forces me to wear a baseball hat and put my head down and concentrate, plus I’m away from e-mail and fantasy baseball and all those terrible e-distractions.

RRM: Do you consider yourself a GREAT WRITER?

LK: This is sort of like the question about shitting on the ruin. I’m not sure what to present as the truth . . . But, firstly, I’d certainly say I am not a GREAT WRITER in all caps like that. But I think it’s probably important for every writer to every once in a while feel like you’re an italicized, lowercase great writer, maybe also in 8-point type, in one of those unreadable cursive fonts like “Kunstler Script.” By which I mean, you don’t want to consider yourself a GREAT WRITER but the feeling after you’ve written something you think is good is a really good feeling. And it’s temporary. And you pay for that feeling later on when you reread your GREAT WORK and see it for the SHIT IT IS and begin the process of working it to a point where it comes close to what you think is your BEST, if not necessarily objectively GREAT WORK. So I’d say I sometimes consider myself close to being the BEST WRITER I can be sometimes at this point in my life and maturity and skillz and all that. And other times I consider myself an ABSOLUTE SHIT WRITER and this feeling of ABSOLUTE SHITTINESS is essential to working harder to once again feel like the BEST WRITER I can be. And vice versa. Also, I think the more you write the more humble you become.


RRM: Is either Van Neeko Clariot or yourself currently marketing Love in the Time of Coca-Cola for print publication in THE FUTURE?

LK: The travelogue on called “Love in the Time of Coca-Cola” is the actual travelogue from a trip I took from Austin to San Jose, Costa Rica by school bus over a few months in the fall of 1995. It’s not exactly the fictional one of the same name that the narrator’s working on in the book. Love in the Time of Coca-Cola in the book is more like an on-going personal encyclopedia that covers everything since graduating college, with plans to document everything for twenty four years as the narrator lives along what he calls “The Alphabet of Cities,” moving each year from Austin to Boston to Cuzco to Durham to Eureka to Fez etc. I have no real plan to try to convince someone to print the original travelogue though it’d be fun to edit (I typed the 100-page manuscript really quickly in 1999 – it definitely needs some typo-cleaning work and general shaping/trimming) and print it one day, maybe with some photos from the trip. I talked my way out of a Honduran jail one night (brought in on charges of public urination). Stared into the mouth of an active volcano. Traveled with freaks and cuties. Just had pretty amazing experiences every third day or so. Anyway.

RRM: Do you plan on running indefinitely? Do you feel you make a large sacrifice of your time editing and coding If so, why?

LK: I’d like to do Eyeshot forever. Why not? It doesn’t take as much time as one might think since I got the system down and don’t deal with “assistant editors” or whoever. Plus I get to put up digital photos I take. Correspond with writers all over the world. Promote books and journals and readings and things. Help some people out sometimes. It’s literary volunteer work. And it’s never a bore or a burden. I wouldn’t do it if it annoyed me. Once it starts pissing me off, I’ll quit it for a while. But I doubt that’ll happen.

RRM: Do you have the intention of ever settling down with a nice girl and purchasing a dependable American automobile?

LK: For many years I’ve owned a dependable Swedish vehicle. And I’ve sort of just settled down in Iowa City with a nice girl after a bunch of years in Brooklyn releasing whatever restlessness was leftover from my twenties and teens.

RRM: QUESTION! If you claim you ARE NOT the Lee Klein of the NNCGA (Nebraska National Corn Growers Association) how do you vouch for the uncanny resemblance? a) Lee Klein b) Lee Klein

LK: This is sort of like THE SHITTING ON THE RUIN or THE GREAT WRITER questions. It’s so much more complicated than either answering “this” or “that.”

RRM: Why then do you so tenderly hold this kernel of corn?

LK: It is not a kernel of corn. It is crust harvested from the navel of the other Lee Klein.

About the author:

© 2011 Word Riot

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